Anne Ephrussi Awarded 2023 Developmental Biology-Society for Developmental Biology Lifetime Achievement Award


by Ana Maria Carmo

Anne Ephrussi is the winner of the 2023 Developmental Biology-Society for Developmental Biology Lifetime Achievement Award. She is currently a Group Leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, where her lab is dedicated to the study of post-transcriptional RNA regulation during development, such as mRNA transport and localized translation. Her group is particularly interested in the oskar mRNA, which is crucial in the development of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Ephrussi enjoys “drilling down to mechanisms” of this molecule that keeps on giving. She said she hasn’t “been bored one second,” which is plain to see from her impressive contributions to the field of mRNA regulation, in which she has established herself as a leader.

Ephrussi’s passion for science came naturally. Growing up in France with some sojourns in the United States, she was surrounded by incredible thinkers from a young age. Both her American mother and French father were scientists, and so were most of their family friends. Her parents never pressured her to be a scientist, but creativity was always encouraged. She credits the way she approaches science to an early connection to art fostered by her mother, and to this day she tells her students to keep “trying out things, just go and try it and see what happens.”

In addition to creativity, Ephrussi emphasizes passion or “the P word” as her father called it. “You have to be passionate about [science] because it's hard and there will be a lot of bad days for a few good ones,” she said.

At the age of 12, Ephrussi lost her mother. This had a profound impact on her decision to move to the United States for college, to feel closer to her American roots.

“My deep-down role model was my mother. She was doing science as a woman when there were very few. But that was also not discussed, and I think this was very important. It never crossed my mind to wonder ‘can a woman do science?’ It was not even a question, because obviously, yes.”

Indeed, Ephrussi has proven time and time again that she was right not to question it. As a graduate student in Susumu Tonegawa’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ephrussi had one of her most significant breakthroughs. She was interested in understanding why immunoglobulin genes were specifically expressed in some cells and not others. In tight collaboration with George Church, a graduate student from Walter Gilbert’s lab, she found regions in the DNA, later known as E-boxes, that acted as protein binding sites and regulated gene expression. This work resulted in two incredible papers published in Nature and Science, and they were only the beginning of a stellar career.

After a short postdoc in Tom Maniatis’ lab at Harvard, Ephrussi went on to her second postdoc in Ruth Lehmann’s lab at MIT. Categorically describing this as the best time she had in science, this is where she became fascinated by the genetics of oskar and the idea that it could control germ line formation and patterning. She vividly remembers the time when she made her breakthrough discovery of oskar‘s essential role in germ plasm assembly. She ectopically expressed the Oskar protein using genetics, which in itself was a breakthrough, and found that this was sufficient to generate germ plasm and localize other important components at the ectopic location.

“I remember looking up and seeing my colleagues working and thinking, ‘They don't know.’ My breath was cut. I couldn't say a word. I looked again, and then I jumped up and I ran out of the lab, down the hall towards Ruth's office, and she happened to be walking towards me. She saw me running. I said, ‘Ruth—' and she knew something was up. I think she had guessed. And we both started charging down the hall. And I just pointed to the scope. We both sat down and we looked up at each other. It was one of those really cool moments, when you realize this thing [oskar] can really do it all, it recruits everything. That was a really strong moment, and it really paved my career.”

In addition to her job as a group leader, Ephrussi was the head of the Developmental Biology department for almost 15 years. She also helped create EMBL’s International Centre for Advanced Training. This organization offers Ph.D. and Postdoc programs, a career help service, and the renowned EMBL courses and conferences. She considers this to be a second job, but it is also something she does out of conviction, even though it takes a lot of time away from science.

“It's part of sharing and making sure that others have very strong training programs that suit them, where they can find what they need to improve as scientists,” she said. For her, one of the most important aspects is the work that the career service does, of helping scientists find appropriate career paths for their temperament and ambitions.

She said, “My dream is that we see scientists colonizing every aspect of society. Seeing people going … where science can be of use.” As for the courses and conferences, which every year have brought thousands of participants to all the EMBL sites and now also have a considerable virtual presence, she said, “It's really about making science accessible to all. And it's about communication and sharing excitement and science.”

Ephrussi is a person who likes and cares deeply about people (…and cats). Sensitive to the overall dynamics in her lab, she expressed throughout the interview how extremely important it is that her students see her lab as a safe and welcoming space. All her students and postdocs are mentored directly by her, and she asks that all group members treat each other with respect. Everyone needs to feel like they have a support group.

“A real team. For me, this is crucial. It's my family. It's my second family. How people in the lab feel? If they're depressed, I want to know and try to help,” she said.

For young students and scientists, Ephrussi has some suggestions: follow your intuition, think outside the box, do some tinkering to poke your experimental system, and be rigorous. She finds it incredibly humbling that scientists get paid by society to do science and emphasizes that we cannot take that for granted.

“We have to do our utmost to do our science in the most rigorous way possible … we owe it to society and to ourselves and to our colleagues in the field,” she said. Having discovered a major case of scientific fraud in her own lab 13 years ago, she is extremely critical of researchers who fake science, because “in a sense, they're cheating on their own life.” For this reason, she is profoundly invested in making sure all scientific research is ethical.

As the scientific integrity ombudsperson at EMBL, Ephrussi teaches the ethics course to postdocs and students. She is trying to expand it to everyone from undergraduate students to group leaders, as she regards this training as absolutely essential. In addition to her commitment to ethics, she highlighted the importance of giving credit to others.

“It always pays off to be generous,” she said. “It always comes back. Through friendships, through collegiality, and through the generosity of others. And again, you know, how do you get up in the morning? How can you look at yourself in the mirror if you have mistreated a colleague, not given appropriate credit to what they've done, which has contributed to your own thinking in your work? I think this is absolutely key.”

On being nominated and chosen for this award, Ephrussi said, “It’s extremely humbling, considering the individuals who have received it, and the fact that the community, the people who nominated me, and the committee have judged that my contributions have warranted it.”

“None of it would have been possible without incredible mentors and colleagues," she said. "It's a recognition of the training I received from them. It's a recognition of my parents and what they inculcated [in] me, their own passion for science, without ever pushing it on me, ever. And it's a huge credit to all the people in my lab who have done all the work since I've been a PI.”

Ephrussi will present her Lifetime Achievement Award lecture at the Society for Developmental Biology 82nd Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Last Updated 06/22/2023